The Adventure Zone: Graduation Ep. 7 "Secrets, Secrets"
February 6, 2020 6:13 AM - Subscribe

It's the end of the semester! The Thundermen meet with some teachers, trick a counselor and look for poison. When the sun goes down, it's party time. For some that means presents and dancing. For others, oaths and secrets. A dream turns into a nightmare and it seems a friend is missing.
posted by Tevin (32 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There’s got to be a way to introduce backstory without continuing to devote half of every other episode to 1:1 scenes, right? They’re so hit or miss. (Justin’s mostly hit, Clint’s mostly miss.)
posted by supercres at 6:46 PM on February 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

I did laugh quite a few times (Justin’s melon story really got me) but things aren’t really going well for the storytelling. I’m relatively new to this podcast format (I listened to the first episode of Graduation, and liked it enough to go back and start listening to Balance, and I just added Dungeons and Daddies and Dimension 20 to my podcast list) so I started with a lot of good feelings but things have been dragging. The characters are there, it’s just that you can hear people flailing around trying to get a purchase on the story and it’s not working.
posted by PussKillian at 7:40 PM on February 6, 2020

I feel like Travis spent all his energy on world building and had very little to spend on building an actual campaign to play in. More than the other seasons this just feels like a bunch of improvised scenes strung together. And it's fine, still, because they're pretty good at making jokes but there's just a lot of talking at one another and it doesn't really have much energy.

It did strike me today, though, that the title is Graduation and not, for example Matriculation. So maybe this is like the Magicians (books) where the school stuff is setup for adventures in the larger world.

That's what I hope, anyway, because for now it just feels kind of listless.
posted by Tevin at 7:57 PM on February 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

So, I'm liking Graduation a lot (though I understand where the complaints are coming from and have some faith / think I see a faint glimpse of what's coming.)

With Balance, basically, we had a jumpstart on the campaign because Griffin thought there would only be one episode. They went in and filled out the "meeting at a tavern" stuff later on in a bonus episode. Griffin built the world on the fly while messing with "Mines of Phandelver" and got them to the BoB in episode 7, where we are now in Graduation. Travis front-loaded the worldbuilding, which has been very action-light so far (especially since the characters perversely decided to solve their dungeon-crawl via process-serving) but having reached the end of the first semester, we now have a kind of template of what a semester looks like that we can riff on, we know what missions look like, we have a lay of the land in terms of NPCs, and most particularly, all of the PCs have some new stuff in their laps. Fitz will be on the Villain track (though we don't know why, and he's been instructed not to trust Heironymous, who gave him the chance), Master Firbolg knows that there are demons wreaking havoc through the forest, and Argo is part of a secret society with a mission to spy on Fitz.

That's good stuff for going forward with a fiercer pace, I think.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:27 PM on February 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

I remember Travis enthusing about all the world-building he had been doing in one of the last Amnesty arcs and I wondered if this was how it was going to shake out. Hopefully things will turn around like Navelgazer suggests!

Firbolg continues to steal the show and is mostly why I’m following along at this point. I would buy a collection of Firbolg prose.
posted by curious nu at 8:43 AM on February 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

The lack of a sense of movement is starting to get to me. The one on one scenes are exacerbating it because they can’t have the energy of the bunch of them riffing on each other. The sense that things are at least moving behind the scenes is lacking because there really isn’t any. The three adventurers’ pasts are still mostly only hinted at (and in the firbolg’s case, that’s probably all we can get, he doesn’t seem to have the vocabulary to describe what happened or why), and the shadowy goings-on at school aren’t being witnessed by anyone, we only have vague hints being offered by NPCs and the GM isn’t providing any players the means or even motivation to investigate; there isn’t anything in it for them to do so yet.
posted by ardgedee at 12:13 PM on February 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I think TAZ is more satisfying in a binge-listen. Like, even during Balance which I adored, I found that one episode every two weeks felt just excruciatingly slow, but if I took a break and came back and listened to like six eps in a row, they were satisfying and wonderful and left me wanting more, rather than frustrated and bored.

Graduation so far feels more like a novel and less like a big messy collaborative D&D thing. And maybe that's not such a bad thing, I love novels! But when I'm in the middle of a novel I want to read it every day, not one chapter every two weeks.

I've been listening to more Friends at the Table and I find myself wishing TAZ had just a little more of their "play to find out what happens" approach.
posted by beandip at 1:56 PM on February 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

At least this came out in this episode: Fitz' family background is definitely not one of nobility, and he's leveraging his ambitions on Goodcastle or, in a pinch, falling back on being a government-authorized villain with underlings to boss around.
posted by ardgedee at 12:56 PM on February 8, 2020

I think one big thing that is lacking in this arc so far is a sense of shared purpose. Quite the opposite, in fact—at least right now all three characters are actively working in diametrically opposed groups, and all three aren’t supposed to or can’t tell what they are up to . They’ve been getting put in different groups since quite early on, and I think this is having a huge effect on their ability to play in the space. Family playing found family has a lot more resonance.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:24 PM on February 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

Even when there are group scenes, Travis insists on asking each player individually about things like their private dreams or on structuring tasks so that each person has a singular role to perform. I feel like Travis wants to highlight the characters' internal lives because he always spent so much time thinking about that himself, but I feel like he's going about it the wrong way and trying to build an attic before the ground floor is finished.
posted by Scattercat at 10:02 PM on February 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

"Never split the party." isn't just a rule for adventurers. Did the Thundermen have any group scene of consequence this episode?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:24 AM on February 9, 2020

> Did the Thundermen have any group scene of consequence this episode?

Not sure whether The Thundermen exist as a functioning entity in this point in the story or until the next semester starts. Either way though, the answer is no. There was some waffling about doing some adventuring to raise cash but they didn't go through with it.

> one big thing that is lacking in this arc so far is a sense of shared purpose

I think you've put your finger on it.
posted by ardgedee at 6:08 PM on February 9, 2020

I've listened to Rude Tales of Magic twice over in the last month and I can't help but compare it to Graduation - both are heavy on roleplay with little in the way of overt D&D mechanics - but what makes RToM work so well compared to this is the RToM DM moves the story along in the way that the characters push it, whereas in Graduation the DM is tightly controlling the pace and direction of the story and pushing the characters where he wants them to go. This results in lengthy roleplaying scenes and NPC exposition that does little to move the plot or add drama.

Normally I'm happy for D&D to be used in story-heavy campaigns but I really feel like Travis would have benefited from a system that had more story/RP mechanics to help add some drama and urgency to the story. The actual D&D mechanics are barely getting used here.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:00 AM on February 12, 2020

I've been listening to more Friends at the Table and I find myself wishing TAZ had just a little more of their "play to find out what happens" approach.

I keep meaning to get round to trying FatT but this is exactly what RToM has that TAZ is missing.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:02 AM on February 12, 2020

Travis seemingly spent his seven months of prep time before this arc laboriously plotting out every possible inch of this story, leaving almost no room for player agency. He is showing no curiosity at all about how his players might affect or shape the world with their choices. Possibly because if he let them influence, it won’t feel like his story anymore. He is showing a lot of control issues as a DM that would have me quitting this campaign in a heartbeat. I would say this is pure rookie DM mistakes territory, except he supposedly has more D&D experience than the rest of his family, and he has DMed on TAZ before.

I can’t wait for the next The The Adventure Zone Zone episode to see if he’s done any meaningful reflection on the fan feedback they’re getting, or if he will defensively dismiss it like he did on Twitter. I was a huge Travis fan before that exchange.
posted by lieber hair at 1:21 PM on February 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Although he's not denying or refusing to allow actions. Instead, it's just that his NPCs and the world are just complete marshmallow, to the extent that they dissolve player agency like cotton candy when a raccoon tries to wash it. Case in point the plan to serve the Xorn with a subpoena that was a very creative way to avoid conflict. Having the Xorn willing to accept it was great because it made the choice valid, but then the other NPCs all reacted with complete acceptance and lack of surprise, and it drained the idea of its potency. NPCs need to react badly at some point, basically.
posted by Scattercat at 3:22 PM on February 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

if he will defensively dismiss it like he did on Twitter.

I caught that when it happened... it was extremely bad form, especially when he (perhaps unintentionally) sicced his hundreds of thousands of followers on one poor rando.

I wish Travis was approaching this world as more of a playground for his players, with open-ended things to discover. Instead of pre-determining every scene that goes into the show, write different scenes that the players have to discover by finding them organically. Like, it's cool that the school has some kind of shifty weirdness going on, but none of the players have discovered it themselves, it's been fed to them and us over the last few episodes. Part of the problem, I think, is none of the players seem interested in investigating the school. There's no late night harry potter style snooping excursions, there's not even the sensation that the players are in any kind of actual danger. I really wish one of the players would do something really wild and unexpected to stir things up. I can't imagine a situation in this game that feels as off-the-rails as Magnus knocking out the BoB guards and sneaking around felt.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:13 PM on February 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm fine with the plot not moving that much as long as they're all having fun, because them having fun is the entire appeal for me, but when they're not having fun it's painful to listen to. The first few minutes of the episode sounds like a volleyball game where each one of them is serving a ball of something they think will be interesting or funny or moving the plot along and Travis just spikes each one into the ground. I couldn't make myself keep listening.
posted by bleep at 7:53 AM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I might not continue listening to this one, and that's making me a bit sad.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:30 AM on February 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I really wish one of the players would do something really wild and unexpected to stir things up

I'm basically holding out hope that Firbolg reverts to his anarchocommunist roots and upends the entire economy. It's all I'm listening for at this point.

They're so good at giving Travis shit on MBMBAM. They've got to do it a little more here to shake him up. (Worst case scenario: they have and he's not getting it.)
posted by supercres at 8:44 AM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would say this is pure rookie DM mistakes territory, except he supposedly has more D&D experience than the rest of his family, and he has DMed on TAZ before.

I lot of people have years of playing tabletop games... maybe not wrong but certainly disfunctionally. It’s like someone saying “oh yeah, I’ve been on tons of dates! Been married 20 years!” without being self-aware that they’re a shitty date and their marriage is toxic.

I think part of why D&D has such a meh reputation in a lot of circles — someone joined a few games in college, it was awful, decided it wasn’t for them. There’s a whole theory of game design that came out of late 90s/early 00s specifically to address this stuff and in fact Vincent Baker was a big name in a lot of the new-wave game design that came out of that theory.
posted by curious nu at 9:05 AM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I really wish one of the players would do something really wild and unexpected to stir things up
The worst part is that you can hear them trying to do that and Travis brushing it off.

Also somebody posted on twitter a spreadsheet of all the NPCs and it's like dude, there are way too many. When I saw that it became really apparent that this is the Travis Show starring Travis - which is funny cause when we were all saying Griffin was railroading them I was fine with it cause at least it was funny & interesting.
posted by bleep at 9:30 AM on February 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

The difference is Griffin railroaded them into exciting, dramatic, and emotional situations.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 10:00 AM on February 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yeah, to be clear, since I was one of the people who kept pointing out how Griffin had the adventure on rails (moreso in "Balance" than "Amnesty"), I still really liked the show, because ultimately the storytelling was good.
posted by ardgedee at 11:22 AM on February 13, 2020

It's not even that there are too many NPCs but that they keep showing up even when the players and characters have displayed little to no interest in any of them. I feel like Renier (sp?) is the quintessential example of that, dating all the way back to her first appearance. "Doesn't anyone want to hear about my chair!?" No, Travis, no one wanted to have that awkward conversation. Just let it lie. And then this most recent bit, where the players are dragged to her party by the literal intercom system of the school and forced to give her gifts in extreme detail.

Sometimes players just aren't going to love your darlings and you just have to accept that and work with the elements they ARE interested in. I'd give some examples but we haven't really had any chance to see what these characters would like, other than Fitz becoming a knight. (I do like him being shunted to the villain track, which is an actual interesting development despite Travis' efforts to remove all stigma or negative association with the idea.)

Compare this to Griffin's work, wherein Kravitz was clearly marked for a one-off minor villain but Justin's interest in him ended up making him a core character for the rest of the series, and meanwhile the mad scientist guy got basically footnoted even though he was written as the "main character" of the arc because none of the players wanted to pick him up and play with him. Or Pidge, where her return and her implied character arc was a direct reaction to the players failing to follow up with her or act upon her in any way.
posted by Scattercat at 12:00 PM on February 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

> somebody posted on twitter a spreadsheet of all the NPCs and it's like dude, there are way too many

I count 27 in the TAZ wiki, which isn't complete and doesn't include anybody from the adventure to Last Hope.

Numbers alone are unfair metrics, inasmuch as it's not what you have, it's what you do with them: A game with only one NPC can be too many if they get to do more cool stuff than the players. So I've got mixed feelings.

There's an extent to which in "Graduation" the NPCs are getting to do all the cool stuff, or at least they're getting to work at the front of the stage while we never get to witness things like Argo's apparently frequent after-hours activities. I would even settle for another sketch involving the Firbolg attending economics class, that was some great comedy.

There's also the problem with Travis taking all the impact out of the players' actions by having the NPCs suck all the life out of it. The townspeople of New Hope should not have reacted positively to the adventurers serving the Xorn a summons, or at least not have behaved as if serving monsters with legal papers is simply a thing one does; Travis yes-anded the process in a way that sucked all the conflict out of it, and without conflict there is no story. Or comedy, for that matter.

The energy of the first couple episodes of "Graduation" has wound down, and I think it's for these reasons and those noted above. I'd said before that I'm in for an arc of Tres Horny Boys clowning around in high fantasy, but Travis has successfully split them up and has NPCs mediating between them, so even that's not really feasible any more.
posted by ardgedee at 12:29 PM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I personally just hate that I was able to see “yeah he has a lot of backstory to tell that doesn’t involve the PCs” in episode 1 and by episode 3 could tell that he had a lot of killable darlings he was going to nurture. Unfortunately it was telegraphed and er... follows naturally from Travis’s personality.
posted by supercres at 3:34 PM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I wonder now if Argos literally just handing Renier the trash out of his pocket was Clint's slightly passive-aggressive hint to Travis that he wasn't interested in interacting with Renier any longer. Argos doesn't seem like the sort of personality that would be so thoughtless normally.
posted by Scattercat at 6:03 PM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would agree that his players ARE trying to do interesting things, and he almost seems to view that as insubordination. He reacts by either aggressively or passive aggressively pushing them back onto the rails.

The perfect example is the Xorn. How great an idea was it to serve him with a subpoena? But then Travis fashioned him into a big teddy bear with a case of the Hangries and robbed the player decision of any weight. Now, that was boring storytelling, but I could buy an argument that perhaps that was his plan all along and he wasn’t passive aggressively punishing his players in some way for coloring outside the lines. Except.

When they went back to the school to check in, the administrator responded to their brilliant plan by saying something like, “ Oh yeah, we call that the number 18.” Minimizing and dismissing the whole concept. And then he introduced the whole exchange about taking their magic items away from them after every adventure, which also felt punitive, but that’s a whole other story.
posted by lieber hair at 6:11 AM on February 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

"Doesn't anyone want to hear about my chair!?" No, Travis, no one wanted to have that awkward conversation.

Exactly. Like, he's well-intentioned here. Putting in diversity of gender, race, ability. They're even based on his friends! But man it smacks of liberal-moderate tokenism, and no one cares about NPCs just because they're based on his friends. (Tokenism even more so because he's forcefully raising the conversation when his PCs aren't.) It feels like Travis made the same spreadsheet a fan did so that he could tick all the boxes.

I know they got pushback about a nondiverse cast in Balance but doing diversity wrong by reducing it to tokenism among a bunch of at-least-mostly-straight white dudes just feels so much worse than nondiversity. Honestly better to be upfront about writing what you know IMO; I don't see how TAZ can be as authentically/honestly diverse as, e.g., FatT because the players don't have any lived experience of being a minority of any kind.
posted by supercres at 10:03 AM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Someone who identifies as Latinx on the largest TAZ Facebook fan group pointed out how tokenism has been a running theme with Travis. In Dust, he made one of his main NPCs Latino but didn’t even bother making the name reflect that, let alone the character’s background or experiences in that Old West setting. He just said he was Latino and never mentioned it again, which totally smacks of checking boxes.

I for sure appreciate that he’s trying, and I believe that allyship is important to him. I wish he would show it by doing the HARD work, though, instead of drawing on surface elements or things he bases on one person he knows (see aforementioned cringey “ASK ME ABOUT MY CHAIR”).
posted by lieber hair at 8:08 AM on February 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

i appreciate the new format because it's clearly very generous of travis to develop a D&D format where he only needs to have one of his family members on skype at a time and also by making each episode be like 30% conversations with himself he can save his family members even more time and effort
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:44 PM on February 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

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